Buddy Cop Redux: The Nice Guys

by / May. 18, 2016 3am EST

About halfway through Shane Black’s The Nice Guys, Ryan Gosling does a bit that seems to be lifted—perhaps as a mini-homage—from a piece of business used by Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in a number of their 1940s and 1950s movie comedies. In it, the excitable, hapless Costello would be confronted with something or someone so frightening that his throat and voice would seize up and the only sound he could produce would be a strangled whisper or a cough rather than the urgently desired, loud heads-up to his smugly unsuspecting partner.

As Gosling’s partner, Russell Crowe doesn’t do Bud Abbott. Nor does he reprise (as some might have hoped) his angry tough-guy cop role in Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential (1997), even though both stories take place in vintage Los Angeles. With his newly expanded girth and his dry, low-key performance, he sometimes seems to be doing an impression of John Goodman. Gosling certainly isn’t doing Lou Costello and that borrowed bit of business doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the picture, except for its crudely insistent jokey tone.

Actually the pair is replaying the roles of Robert Downey, Jr. and Val Kilmer in Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005). I don’t remember a lot about it, except that it had the same kind of chops-and genre-busting approach to detective movies as this one, and a similar brashly disconcerting mix of the comic and the violent. It’s a style, if you want to call it that, which Black established as the highly paid screenwriter of the Lethal Weapon franchise back in the 1990s.

Nice Guys brings Crowe’s Jackson Healy and Gosling’s Holland March together in a modestly clever fashion. Healy is a muscle-for-hire guy who is paid to make it painfully clear to certain parties that they should desist from doing whatever the purchaser of Healy’s services wishes them to cease doing. In this capacity, he meets March, a private dick who’s rather lackadaisically looking for a girl who doesn’t want to be found. When, after rather bluntly communicating this message to March, Healy is attacked by some thugs looking for the same, now-vanished girl, he joins forces with the P.I. to find her.

The convoluted, rather silly story brings together mob hit-men, porn filmmakers, the US Justice Department, young environmentalists, and a thoroughly ridiculous evil grand scheme hatched in the Detroit auto industry. The movie’s stop-and-go plotting is probably too carelessly complex to summarize, or to follow. The meat of the proceedings is the odd-coupling of Crowe and Gosling, and the frequent, often brutal violence, along with a series of car-crashing set pieces.

Gosling has the better role, but it’s sloppily written, and despite an unsuspected flair for broad comedy, his half-smart, semi-con man, alcohol-hazed detective doesn’t really jell.

Black has a wiseguy approach to his material, but there’s a hit-or-miss quality to the whole thing. Some of the doofus shaggy-dog byplay between the stars is diverting, but Nice Guys has a cobbled-together feel. The level of brutality is off-puttingly incongrous with both the comedy and the sentimentality that’s periodically inserted, chiefly involving March’s thirteen-year old daughter (Angourie Rice).

It’s is the kind of movie you watch when you want to watch something, and there’s nothing better available.